Loving the Alien: An interview with artist George Underwood

George Underwood with David Bowie

George Underwood with David Bowie - Credit: Archant

Artist George Underwood is a creator of fantastical people and mythological beings who inhabit a world of his creating. Candia McKormack talked to him about his life in art and music, and his enduring friendship with David Bowie

White Magic Woman, by George Underwood

White Magic Woman, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

When you’re known as ‘the man who punched David Bowie in the eye’, there’s always the possibility that your other achievements will be overlooked. So, let’s get the small matter of that incident out of the way and move onto talking about the work of one of our greatest living artists…

It all happened 55 years ago, when a 15-year-old David (then Jones) and his classmate at Bromley Technical School, George Underwood, fought over a girl. The strike to David’s left eye damaged the pupil to such an extent that, even following two operations, it remained paralysed and fully dilated. Young George wasn’t to know it at the time, of course, but he helped create the alien look that, along with his revolutionary music and distinctive image, set Bowie apart from his peers.

The Ensemble, by George Underwood

The Ensemble, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“When you’re 15 these things seem important,” George says, as I talk to him from his home in Sussex, “but when you look back you think ‘how stupid I was to be upset by that’. I never meant to cause him any harm… in fact, he did say later that I did him a favour. Everyone seems to think he was born like that, but I’m afraid it was me!”

Far from causing a rift between the school friends, they continued making music together for a while afterwards and had a deep friendship that lasted right up until Bowie’s death last year.

Ride With Stripes, by George Underwood

Ride With Stripes, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“We holidayed together, and I think he quite liked the fact that I wasn’t in the business…” he continues, “if he wanted to, he could be quite dull with me – though he rarely was, of course. We were just good mates.”

The two shared an interest in the avant-garde, in exotic pop music and the arts in general… though in fine art George left David standing. In Brian Hiatt’s book ‘A Portrait of Bowie’, the singer is quoted as saying, “Sitting alongside him in art class convinced me that I would never achieve his fluidity of line, his sense of rightness in relation to his subject, whatever it was. I persuaded my dad to advance me the money for an alto sax instead.”

Pale Lady, by George Underwood

Pale Lady, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

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And so George went on to concentrate on developing a career in fine art – with a brief two-year stint, aged 20, in the art department of Pye Records on £9 a week (“It was rubbish!”) after suffering a breakdown due to having his drink spiked with acid. Those two years gave him the confidence he needed to set up as a freelance artist, going on to produce album cover art for the likes of Marc Bolan with T. Rex’s debut album ‘My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows’ – “The longest title in pop history!” – along with pieces for Mott the Hoople, Procol Harum, and of course his old school chum David Bowie.

But today I’m talking to him as he’s returning to the Cotswolds with an exclusive show of some of his otherworldly figurative work.

The Alchemists, by George Underwood

The Alchemists, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

The exhibition will feature 32 oil paintings – some on board, some on canvas. “There may even be 33 if I finish the one I’m working on at the moment!” he laughs. “I’ve done all the paintings specially for the show, so I’ve been looking at my sketchbooks, scratching my head and deciding what to work on. I tend to take elements of each of them and see what comes together.”

At one stage his figurative oil paintings were inspired by the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism: “When I first saw those guys I thought ‘Wow – they’re amazing!’ I wouldn’t say in any way I’m on their level of expertise, but it’s like sowing a seed, you know… but the last thing you want to do is copy someone else’s style.”

The Philosopher's Wife, by George Underwood

The Philosopher's Wife, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

There is absolutely no way he can be accused of doing that, for his creations emerge from a world solely of George’s creation.

“I want the person looking at them to make up their own mind about what they’re about, rather than assigning any particular meaning to them. For instance, with ‘The Ensemble’, I haven’t got a clue what that’s about,” he laughs.

George Underwood in his Sussex studio

George Underwood in his Sussex studio - Credit: Archant

I suggest there’s something rather sinister about that particular painting, as though the observer is about to be judged. “Yes, it’s the Inquisition, isn’t it? [pause] …I must admit I’m not particularly good at doing smiley faces!”

Aha, that’s it – the Spanish Inquisition! Though nobody expects them, he’s hit the nail on the head. And there is a distinctive ecclesiastical element to many of George’s figures – the suggestion of nuns’ wimples and such – though he says that wasn’t necessarily his intention.

Bird Lady, by George Underwood

Bird Lady, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“Though I’m not religious, I am influenced by some of the old-school artists, like Titian, so I suppose some of that might have rubbed off on me… and some of my faces do look as though torn from the past, from an illustrated Bible or something.”

He doesn’t sketch or paint from real life, but the faces in his work feel like they could be people George has known. Behind those expressions of melancholy and defiance, there are stories to be told: what events have led to that moment? Why are they dressed the way they are? Are they aware they’re being observed? Are they observing – and judging – us? (shades of the Inquisition again)

Woman with Striped Sleeve, by George Underwood

Woman with Striped Sleeve, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“I do have fun painting people who, though they might not have been flesh and blood before, I try to paint the flesh and blood onto them. They look like they might have been breathing once upon a time.

“One of the artists I really look up to is Velázquez. What a precocious person he must have been, painting for the King as a teenager – and I think to myself, ‘that’s something you’re born with, I guess’. In art you don’t really get child prodigies – though I think Picasso said he did a few things when he was about ten… but you can’t believe everything he said!”

Hat Trick, by George Underwood

Hat Trick, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

At primary school, a friend of George’s said to him that his dad was going to buy him a skull as he wanted to study to be a doctor. Nine-year-old George was excited by the idea of being able to own a human skull and so he went home to his mum and said, “Mum, Steven Asquith’s dad’s going to buy him a skull and I’d like one.” He remembers being quite taken back by her response when she said, “What do you want a skull for? You’ve already got one – go look in the mirror!”

Young George was constantly drawing, and his creative mind would see faces where others wouldn’t – joining up marks on paper to make facial features, and seeing them in steam on the kitchen window while his mum was cooking. And, looking at the intricate patterns on the costume and headdresses in some of his figures – many looking as though moulded from clay or carved into stone, while others embossed into leather – you can definitely pick out the suggestion of faces and shadowy outlines of strange creatures.

Striped Bull, by George Underwood

Striped Bull, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“Yes,” he says, “sometimes I put them in there intentionally, and other times they’re supposed to be abstract and aren’t actually faces, but could be! I do like that thing with paintings where the more you look, the more you see.” He goes on to describe the ‘hair in the gate’ phenomenon where, when you’re watching an old cine film and a hair appears on the screen and you stop looking at the film and all you can see is the hair. It’s a particular way of viewing the world; while many stop seeing the hair after a while, there are those who become fixated with the detail; it becomes impossible to ignore.

“Someone once said,” he muses, “there’s a lot of geometry going on in my paintings. It’s something that happens, coincidentally, when you get a hat and another hat joined together, or circles and curves that take your eye away from the face.

Take Me To Church, by George Underwood

Take Me To Church, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

“I was talking to the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum recently,” he continues, “and he came up with the theory that the repetitive patterns that come up in an artist’s work are due to Tourette’s, as he himself has it. He said ‘Do you know George Tooker?’ and I said ‘yeah, I do; he’s an American artist who does lots of repetitive heads in strict, uniform patterns’. And Odd said that he had Tourette’s and wondered if I did, too. I said ‘no’, but I do think that’s interesting…”

And this takes us back to George’s lifelong friend, as it was Bowie who first noticed the connection between the Norwegian artist and George’s work, saying, “There’s a timeless element in the choice of subject matter that overlaps with the mythical world of Odd Nerdrum… Now that a huge shift to painting is taking place, I would expect to see George’s name pushed further and further to the front.”

Performers, by George Underwood

Performers, by George Underwood - Credit: George Underwood

Never let the small matter of a punch in the eye get in the way of true friendship.


The Thinking Eye

The Thinking Eye runs from October 1-29 at The Fosse Gallery, Stow-on-the-Wold, GL54 1AF, tel: 01451 831319, fossegallery.com

George Underwood’s hardback book ‘Soulful Warriors’ will be on sale at the show for £20. georgeunderwood.com